Photographer, author, activist and longtime carnival reveller Max Farrar on Carnival, Chapeltown and photography.
Some people are lovers, others are fighters, Max Farrar is both. Max Farrar is the type of person who will fight for the things he loves. One of the things Max Farrar loves is Chapeltown, another is the West Indian Carnival that has been held there since 1967. When Max Farrar first arrived in Leeds as a student in 1968, he had no idea about the Leeds West Indian Carnival, which was then in its infancy. Although he moved to Chapeltown in 1970, he spent his summers out of Leeds, missing the entire thing. He met Ruth Bundey and joined the Chapeltown Community Association in 1972. He took over the association’s newspaper, Chapeltown News and using a Pentax Spotmatic with a 55mm lens he began taking photographs for the paper. His friendship with Edris Browne and Hughbon Condor led to his love affair with Leeds West Indian Carnival, a relationship that has lasted over forty-five years. Max Farrar began taking photographs of the carnival in 1974 and hasn’t stopped since. His photo of the Carnival Committee, taken in 1974, is one of the best known photos of Leeds Carnival. He met with Danny Friar one afternoon in April 2018 to discuss Carnival, Chapeltown and photography.
When did you come to Leeds and what brought you here?
I came to Leeds in 1968 to be a student at Leeds University studying sociology.
Did you experience Leeds West Indian Carnival then?
No. I lived in Chapeltown in 1970, the year of my final exams, 70-71. I graduated in the summer of ’71 but went away so I didn’t experience carnival in the summer. I was always out of Leeds for the summer until 1972 when I came back to Leeds and met Ruth Bundey who at that time was secretary of Chapeltown Community Association which is what I joined in 1972. Ruth was a friend of Edris Browne because she lived in the same place, one of those big houses in Reginald Terrace or somewhere where they were split into flats. Edris lived in the flat above Ruth and Edris was from Saint Kitts and was already involved in carnival and she had invited Ruth into carnival about ’70 or ’71 I should think. I’m not quite sure when Ruth first got involved. So Edris invited Ruth, Ruth invited me and my then girlfriend Jane, now my wife. So from ’72 or ’73, I’m not quite sure which, we went to the Queen Show at the Mecca Ballroom and we were also doing Chapeltown News and so for obvious reasons Chapeltown News wanted to cover carnival, wanted to write about carnival, take pictures of carnival, and I was the sort of rudimentary photographer at that time so I began to take photos. I met Hughbon Condor also in this very early period, ’72-’73, and Hughbon also said “you’ve got to get involved in carnival, you gotta come down, you gotta just experience this extraordinary phenomenon.” And so we duly did. Then for several years in the seventies I photographed carnival and sort of watched it. I think we probably missed a couple towards the end of the seventies but from the late seventies/early eighties onward me and Jane and our kids went to carnival every year.
Can you tell me about Chapeltown News and how that got started?
There was an organisation called Chapeltown Community Association, which if you really want to get it right the dates are in my Chapeltown book (‘The Struggle for Community in a British Multi-ethnic Inner-city Area: Paradise in the Making’) and my memory is now a little bit hazy but I suspect that started in 1970 I think or maybe ’71. I guy called Tim Mobbs, who was a lecturer in town planning at the school of planning, lived in Chapeltown, he lived in the Newton Garth flats actually, him and his family. He was already interested in community development because of his town planning experience and training. He gathered together representatives of all the Asian organisations and some of the Caribbean organisations along with people who were in things like tenant associations and he formed the Chapeltown Community Association, which among its members it had a guy who was a professional journalist, Adam. So soon after they formed the Community Association they decided to have a newsletter, a newspaper, which they called the Chapeltown News. When I came along in ’72 I started to help a bit with that. As it happened, at that time, Adam got a job somewhere else so it was a question of who was going to take the responsibility for making sure Chapeltown News came out and I pretty much took that responsibility from about ’73 onward. I think you can tell when I took over cos the layout is so completely wonky, I’d never done anything like it before and there wasn’t a straight line on the page, it was a total mess. That’s about issue 5, I think, or issue 6, something like that. It was just because there was nobody else around. I was a PHD student so I had a lot of time on my hands and I was trying to write about Chapeltown and so I could justify it as a sort of way of learning more about Chapeltown to do a bit of journalism. I never knew anything about journalism either but we just sort of made it up as we went along.
I read somewhere that you were putting it together in your living room.
Yeah, kitchen table usually. Clear the kitchen table, work flat out for a whole weekend. Probably start Friday night, finish early hours of Sunday morning. Surprisingly labour intensive. Cowgum, typewriter, set squares, Biros. You can tell as you look at it. In fact, later on when the Punks invented Fanzines I thought ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing really’. One or two people then helped us out that had better skills so it does begin to look a bit more orthodox as time goes on.
How often did issues come out?
We aimed for once a month. Sometimes we slipped; sometimes it was like five weeks. I’m sure we did about ten issues a year in the period that I was involved. We stopped doing Chapeltown News after the Bonfire Night trials so that is ’76. Sometime in the summer of ’76 we handed it over to a smaller collective of younger radical black people who took over for the last three or four issues.
What was Chapeltown like in the seventies?
What my book ‘The Struggle for Community’ concentrates on is the militancy of the various types of neighbourhood organisations and that is, for me, central to living in Chapeltown and witnessing Chapeltown. There was a large network of organisations in the Caribbean community, there’s the Jamaican Association, there’s the Barbados Association, The United Caribbean Association and they all kind of overlap in some respects. The Sikhs had their main temple at that point which was the only one public Sikh temple, there was the Pakistanis Workers Association, obviously the Mosques are forming, they were not quite as public. The Sikhs for instance organised protests about what we called in the Chapeltown News ‘The Sikh Turban Issue’, the rights of Sikhs to wear their turbans on the buses. They held a big public demonstration and won. They had to take on the union because there were pretty racist elements in the transport and general workers union. They opposed the right of the Sikhs to wear their turbans. So, there was a lot of controversy. The Caribbean people organised the strike at Cowper Street School. Chapeltown News never had to look for the news. There was always something going on but the underlying thing which was very evident and created an enormous amount of bitterness was the police harassment of young black boys. Mainly they were boys but some older men got a bit of trouble as well. But it was sort of teenagers who were continually being stopped by the cops and treated very badly and that resulted in the first riot by black people in this country, anywhere in this country which was on November 5th 1975. The militancy, particularly of the Caribbean people, was very visible and very significant in shaping Chapeltown throughout the seventies. I see the riots as, I call it ‘violent urban protest’, I think it’s much better thought of as a form of protest.
The Community Association wasn’t particularly militant. It was probably much more closely aligned with what, at the time, the Liberal Party were champions of, kind of community politics. When I became the secretary I think we became a little bit more militant and we did have some demonstrations and blocked the roads to try and get the council to clean the streets better and it became a bit more militant for a while. The important point is the network of religion based organisations which had a whole raft of social functions. There’d often be youth clubs associated with them or sports teams or whatever. This meant that as well as the political organising there was a very strong network of social organising and I think that is one of the reasons why Chapeltown remained pretty cohesive. You’d never really describe it as a demoralised neighbourhood; it was never a broken neighbourhood. There were symptoms of demoralisation, a certain level of crime and a certain level of prostitution and pimping and so on and that of course is what the authorities concentrated on all the time. It was always a vibrant neighbourhood. It was always a neighbourhood were you knew social life was intact, family life was still intact. In many ways the carnival is the best expression of that.
You could always get the carnival on the road. Among the Caribbean people, whether they were political or not, there was always this strong social origination that would make costumes put stalls up and provided the basis for the carnival which entails a huge amount of people doing a huge amount of work.
How did people react to you when you first started taking photos?
This goes back to the militancy. I was very aware, because the black militants made it very clear that they weren’t best pleased to see white people getting too involved in the political issues because they said this is just another example of white missionaries coming in to try and preach or white leftists coming in to preach. I was seen really as a sort of leftist missionary by some of the more militant people. They were very direct in their criticism of me. Obviously, there’s a lot of contact because if you’re trying to do something for Chapeltown News you have to go talk to people. The thing about carnival was, and Arthur (France) has made this very plain, carnival was there to show the other side of black life in Britain. Yes, there was this militant critical side but the other side was the creative, convivial, cultural side of black life in Britain. Most of that criticism was suspended, and particularly if someone like Hughbon Condor was there, you were sort of directly invited in and that certainly meant that the photographer side was perfectly straight forward because people asked for their photo to be taken. They liked to see a photo that then came out in Chapeltown News and if they asked me for a print, I had a dark room in those days so I’d print them. The photography was largely by consent. The other thing that I notice when I look at the very early photos, I very rarely get close in and of course I didn’t have a telephoto lens, so the distance you see in the photos is the distance I was keeping from the people. That was because I was pretty cautious, I didn’t want to invade and I didn’t want to be a missionary and I didn’t want to be a leftist preacher either. I hope I approached it with the right amount of respect. The other point about that is people do change their minds and as time went on throughout the seventies, even when we’d finished Chapeltown News, relationships improved.
In 1974, you took the now-famous photo of the Carnival Committee, how did that come about?
That is a Chapeltown News photo. By that time I certainly knew Arthur a bit. Arthur was very critical but of course I was a friend of Hughbon’s who was there and I knew Vince Wilkinson a bit better as well. I would have contacted Arthur directly and said “Can I get a photo of the committee?” And he said we’ve got a meeting at Cowper Street School on that particular Sunday, probably, come along. I can’t actually remember going in and digging them out but that’s what I would have done. This is what I mean by relationships improving. Arthur would give me jip if he wanted to on a political occasion but they could see that Chapeltown News was making a contribution to the neighbourhood and they were pleased to have their pictures in the paper. I know they were cos it sold like hot cakes did Chapeltown News.
Can you describe what Carnival was like in the seventies?
By today’s standards it was a pretty small affair and it was pretty homespun. The level of professionalism that you now see in the costume making and things, it was there but there was less of it. Probably the majority of people participated in their everyday clothes and just enjoyed the jumping up on the road and steel bands on the road. It assembles from the park so it’s a slow gathering of all the people who want to be in the procession combined with the fairly small number of Queens with fairly small troupes. There would always be six or seven Queens but the troupes in costume might only have ten or fifteen people in them. For me, and this is very much a very young, white, heterosexual male outsider, it was magical. It looked brilliant, it looked sexy and you know, people could be rightly critical of a young white male who wonders around the carnival crowd looking at all these fabulous women with not many clothes on. I have to take the blows for that. I have to say at least one of them became a very good friend of mine because she wanted her photograph taken and she just wanted to be a friend. The magic of it was a combination of the art, the way the art makes the world beautiful and the beautiful men and women who were making that art and displaying it. That’s what it meant for me and it also meant the same for my wife. She loved it and she probably thought some of the men were pretty tasty. She also saw this extraordinary flowering of people’s everyday creativity. People were making this pretty much from scratch. It is a tradition and they are imitating in some respects but people are continually using that imagination, the skills that they’ve got and the materials and the ingenuity of it is one of the things that impresses you. In terms of going on the road, the music in the early days came from actual steel bands who would set up in the park. So the park would be full of the sound of steel bands but then the pans would be put on wooden platforms that were on low running scaffolding trolleys so you might get eight or nine guys with their pans on a trolley with pretty simple wheels on and when I say simple, the wheels would come off. I don’t think anybody had really designed the kind of scaffolding and trolleys that steel pans needed to go straight on the road and to be dragged by ropes. Of course that was great for fit young guys like me.
People rightly see it as a predominantly black thing but if you look carefully at the photos in this period you’ll see it’s not just lads like me or women like Jane who were interested in being part of it, there was always dotted about white men and women who want to be in the procession and the white men were always welcome to come and help drag the trolleys because it was flipping hard work. You’d start in the park and in those days it processed all the way in to town and back, it took absolutely forever and if a wheel came off it stopped for twenty minutes while somebody came and repaired it. It was hard labour but somehow that was part of the magic of it.
What was it like in the park? Was there many stalls?
There would be some, very homemade, maybe a decorator’s table and a few table cloths and people would be putting something up and selling things but from memory that wasn’t part of the attraction, there was very few stalls. From my memory, the stalls don’t really get going until the late 80s or early 90s.
What are your memories of the Queen Shows?
An outstanding memory of the first Queen Show in the Mecca Ballroom, which is a superb venue and you can tell from one or two of the photos what a superb venue it was. Because it was a ballroom it had a balcony where you could sit and look down on people dancing in the ballroom but obviously for the Queen Show they had a stage and you looked down onto the stage and that’s where me and Jane and Ruth and probably Edris, I’m not sure if Edris was one of the contestants or not this year, but we’d be sitting up there and at one point there was a bit of a uproar and everybody on the balcony rushed to the edge of the balcony absolutely delighted and shouting and cheering and laughing like mad and I thought ‘oh there’s a special act going on down below’. So I ran to the edge of the balcony and I’ll never get over this, it ruined my life, I realised what the great show was that was causing such hilarity was two white people dancing. I’ll never forgive Chapeltown for this because it made me nervous about dancing in public for the next twenty years. Now, I’ve just about gotten over it. They danced just like how we danced as students, basically just throwing your arms and legs in wild directions. In fact, someone later described it as the ‘headless chicken dance’ and that’s absolutely what it was and I thought ‘shit! If I was down there that’s exactly how I would be dancing and they’d all be laughing at me’. That scarred me for life.
The other thing was, when the Queens came on, it did look spectacular because they were drop dead gorgeous. It was a sort of mini Hollywood. It was just fabulous.
Max Farrar continues to photograph Leeds West Indian Carnival today. As a member of the Harrison Bundey Mama Dread troupe he has taken part in the parade for the past twenty years. His book ‘The Struggle for “Community” in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner City Area: Paradise in the Making’ was published in 2002. He wrote the text for the 2017 book ‘Celebrate! 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival’, a photograph book to includes many of his photographs. Both books and other works by Max Farrar can be purchased here.
Special thanks to Max Farrar who provided all the photos for this feature.